The Raccoon (Procyon lotor) is native to North and South America having a range that extends from Southern Canada to the northern reaches of Argentina. Raccoons have feral populations in Europe, especially Germany, where they escaped from fur farms and were set loose to be hunted for sport during the time of World War II. The raccoon gets its name from the Algonquin word arakun which means "one who scratches with his hands." Raccoons are plantigrade animals, walking on the entirety of their foot – heel to toe. Bears and humans do this as well.
Raccoons are probably the most recognized animal in the United States. Their distinctive black masks and ringed tails make them easy to identify. There are 6 species of raccoon, but there are not many traits that differentiate them. Raccoons are generally 2 ½ feet long from nose tip to tail tip. Their average weight range is 12 - 16 pounds, with raccoons in colder territories weighing considerably more. The largest raccoon on record weighed over 60lbs. Raccoons can live for 15 years, but most only live to be 5 or 6. Adult raccoons don't have many predators, except man. Humans hunt them for fur and meat and many are run-over or killed off as pests.
Raccoons are amazingly adaptable and have probably benefited more from the presence of humans than not. Although they prefer wooded territory close to water, raccoons have no problem surviving in urban environments and as human populations have spread into less hospitable territories, raccoon populations have spread with them. Raccoons nest in tree hollows or empty underground dens but are equally at home in abandoned cars, sewers or your chimney. They are generalists, rapidly adapting to ever changing environments and food sources.
Raccoons are highly intelligent and have a manual dexterity that comes close to that of apes. Their long delicate fingers easily open clam shells, trash cans and doors. They are true omnivores and are opportunistic in their diet. They will eat fruit, insects, berries, nuts, eggs, small rodents, grapes, corn, crabs, crayfish and anything edible you may have left in the backyard. It was once thought that raccoons washed their food. They do not. Raccoons have a highly sensitive sense of touch which water helps to enhance. Even when water is unavailable, raccoons will use the same motions while they manipulate their food or objects they are interested in. This tactile experience gives the raccoon a better sense of what it will be eating. It is as if they "see" with their hands.
Raccoon kits (usually 3 – 6 of them) are born 2 months after mating. They are weaned by 8 weeks, and soon after will go on foraging trips with their mother. She will teach them how to climb, swim and find food. This is the only time you will typically see groups of raccoons together. Be cautious about approaching them. Females will be extremely aggressive and ferocious if they feel their young are threatened. Many raccoon kits will "winter over" with their mothers and not leave until spring.
Raccoons do not hibernate, but they will feed heavily in the fall, storing extra fat so they can stay in their burrows through the worst parts of winter. Raccoons are generally nocturnal. If you find a raccoon wandering about or stumbling during the day, especially in populated areas, do not go near it. Raccoons are carriers of rabies and distemper and can transfer these diseases to humans. Do not "dispose" of the raccoon either. It is best to call a Wildlife Rehabilitation Center and let them take care of the animal.
Fun Raccoon Facts
- The raccoon's scientific name, Procyon lotor, means "washer dog" although it is a closer relative to the bear family.
- Population densities of raccoons in urban areas can be 20 times higher than for raccoons in rural environments.
- Raccoons have a large array of vocalizations. They purr, whistle, growl, hiss, scream and even whinny.
- Raccoons have been kept as pets (President Coolidge and his wife had one named Rebecca), and while young, seem happy to be in human company. As they mature, especially during mating season, they can become increasingly destructive and aggressive.
- A raccoon's hands are so nimble they can unlace a shoe, unlatch a cage and deftly retrieve coins as thin as dimes from your shirt pocket.
Animal Diversity Web